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Friday, Nov. 10, 2006 | There seems to be a limited quantity of influence in the political universe. For someone to gain power, someone else must lose it. And with Democrats in control of the House and Senate after Tuesday’s election, one of San Diego’s senior congressmen appears to be appropriating political clout from another.
Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, who was easily reelected to a seventh term Tuesday, is poised to become chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which oversees related legislation and agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At the same time, Rep. Duncan Hunter, who also won reelection this week and is considering a bid for the Oval Office in 2008, will lose his position as chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. Hunter will likely become the ranking minority member of the committee, which is responsible for the funding and oversight of the Defense Department, the armed forces and parts of the Department of Energy.
The national power shift marks a reversal of fortunes for the two politicians, putting Filner in the majority status for the first time since he was a freshman congressman, and forcing the outspoken Hunter to take a back seat to the Democratic leadership.
While it’s too early to exactly how that reallocation of influence will be felt locally, San Diego’s veterans community and defense industry are monitoring the situation, the former considering the possibilities of having a local champion in charge while the latter ponders the inside track it stands to lose.
The biggest change will come for Hunter.
“Going from his former job to his current job is as big a let down as going from president to former president,” said Sam Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “He was one of the most powerful men in America last month.”
Hunter will no longer wield the gavel over one of the House’s most powerful bodies. Accordingly, he’ll lose the ability to set the committee’s agenda – which allowed him to effectively veto legislation by not docketing it – draft initial changes into legislation and have the last word on the annual defense authorization bill, which totaled $463 billion this year.
Hunter will also lose control of numerous staff members that work for the committee.
While the demotion comes as a big political hit for Hunter, it also has potential implications for the San Diego’s military and defense industries, which contribute an estimated $18 billion to $23 billion to the region’s economy annually, according to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Certainly he used his committee chairmanship, as all committee chairs do, to benefit his district and make sure that the legislation that came out of that committee was favorable to San Diego,” said Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University.
General Dynamics NASSCO, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and other local ship repair companies could be the first to feel Hunter’s loss of power, said Peter Litrenta, chairman of the chamber’s military advisory council and executive director of the San Diego Ship Repair Association.
“He has been very instrumental in trying to assure that a proper amount of defense dollars are spent in maintaining our fleet here in San Diego,” Litrenta said of Hunter.
A member of the committee for his entire 26-year career, Hunter has exerted much of his influence by promoting local companies who produce products that might aid the national defense, Litrenta said.
This year San Diego received $250 million of the $3.812 billion that the federal government spent on ship maintenance, Litrenta said. But that number could decline as Hunter loses sway.
“There’s concern,” Litrenta said. “We don’t know how it’s going to play out but there’s confidence that the quality of what we do will stand us in good stead.”
Larry Blumberg, the executive director of the San Diego Military Advisory Council, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of the military and defense industry, said he’s comforted by the fact that the committee is traditionally bipartisan. He also notes that Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, who is expected to gain influence, is one of its members.
Blumberg said other members of the committee, including Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who will likely succeed Hunter as chairman, are already familiar with San Diego’s defense industry assets.
“Will we have the same kind of access to Ike Skelton? I doubt it,” Blumberg said. “But the defense community here will remain strong as long as the defense budget remains strong.”
Some observers say Hunter will still retain much of his influence.
“Ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee is still a powerful position and he’s going to remain a powerful liaison for the San Diego area,” said Brad Fitch, CEO of Knowlegis, a government relations firm that recently ranked all of the members of Congress by the amount of power they exercise. “When he calls, the Secretary of Defense is still going to pick up.”
Noting that Hunter has played a key role in keeping the armed services in San Diego at a time when the military was closing bases nationwide, Popkin said he thinks Hunter’s reduction in rank may spell more trouble for the local military than the defense industry.
“Certainly there is going to be more likelihood of moving naval stuff around,” Popkin said.
Andrea Moser is a vice president at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit that works to grow the local economy and led the charge to keep Congress from closing local military instillations earlier this year.
Moser said Hunter was instrumental in that process but doesn’t think his soon-to-be-reduced status is cause for alarm.
And Hunter doesn’t seem to be too alarmed himself.
“Congressman Hunter will continue working in this spirit to ensure San Diego’s defense community receives the attention it deserves, while also maintaining his strong commitment to America’s military men and women,” Hunter’s spokesman wrote in an e-mail message.
Despite the current setback, Hunter’s work in those areas could take on a grander scale.
Earlier this month he announced that he’s exploring a run for the presidency in 2008, something that, if successful, could benefit San Diego’s military and economy. And it may not be a total loss even if he fails. A former committee chairman, Hunter has all of the qualifications to become Secretary of Defense himself if another Republican wins the White House.
While Hunter may have grand ambitions, Filner, the highest ranking Democrat on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is set to take its helm. The committee oversees legislation related to veterans’ benefits, healthcare and cemeteries and has considerable influence over the $400 million budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Filner won’t carry as much weight as Hunter does at the moment but he’ll control the committee’s agenda, double the size of his committee staff and have a larger platform to advocate for veterans, something he’s made a top priority.
“Every ranking member who moves to chairman gets a big boost in power,” Fitch said. “He’s now going to be able to put his imprint on the committee.”
While the committee has a national focus, Filner’s ascent will likely have impacts in San Diego County, which has the highest per-capita ratio of veterans of any county in the United States, according to the United Veterans Council.
“I think that can’t be anything but favorable,” said Blumberg, pointing to the veterans home that Filner helped establish in Chula Vista.
UCSD’s Popkin agrees.
“He’ll make the hospitals run on time,” he said.
John Weaver, the president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he hopes Filner pushes for more funding for health services for wounded soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With federal support of veterans often put by the wayside, Filner will have his work cut out for him. While his position won’t be the most influential in Congress, Fitch said “that doesn’t mean that’s not exactly where he wants to be politically.”